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BEACON Senior News

Local senior overcomes homelessness to earn her degree

May 29, 2024 04:15PM ● By Libby Kinder

In May, Renee Anderson proudly walked the stage at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and received the diploma she worked 15 years to achieve.

Overcoming a background marked by mental health struggles and prejudice, along with the challenges of being unhoused and living in a car, Renee Anderson has consistently defied the odds. But Anderson, 66, thrives on defying expectations.

This May, Anderson proudly walked the stage at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) and received the diploma she worked 15 years to achieve. Her journey is one of personal insight and a stubborn resolve to be a positive example to her nine grandchildren. 

“Completing what I started brings me the utmost joy,” Anderson shared. “I persevered through my obstacles and dramas. Now I’m getting the final reward.” 


Anderson was born and raised in Colorado Springs, graduating from Palmer High School in 1975. Despite being an A/B student, she chose to forgo higher education. 

By 21, she was a single mother raising two sons. She grew estranged from her parents, particularly her father, whose attitude was shaped by the racism prevalent in the South where he grew up. It created a rift, especially as her sons were of mixed race.

She married at 29, but the relationship was short-lived, ending soon after their move to a gang-infested area of Los Angeles. Amid these struggles, she took pride in both her sons graduating from high school.

The dynamic within her family changed after her mother died in 1980. However, brighter days were on the horizon. Anderson reconciled with her father and moved in with him after she landed a plum position as a transactional risk coordinator at the Walmart corporate offices in Bentonville, Arkansas. 

For the first time in a long time, her living situation was stable and she was on a promising career path. However, this period of stability was short-lived. 

Complications arose when Anderson’s sister, struggling with severe substance abuse, moved in with them. Their father died a year later, and her sister was on a downhill trajectory battling her addictions. 


The situation escalated dramatically in 2008 when an altercation between the sisters led to arrests and domestic violence charges. This forced Anderson to leave her home and she was suspended from work, pending the outcome of the case. 

With unexpected time on her hands, Anderson sought productive ways to fill her days. Once the charges were dismissed, allowing her to return to her normal life, she had already embarked on a new journey.

Thriving on the demands of a full schedule, Anderson enrolled in college at age 51. By 2014, she’d earned an Associate of Applied Science degree in criminal justice from NorthWest Arkansas Community College.

Her decision to major in criminal justice was deeply personal yet broadly relevant.

“The world is in a mess right now, and I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” said Anderson. 

Determined to “break the circle of racism,” Anderson is painfully aware that discriminatory attitudes persist, noting the ongoing existence of the Ku Klux Klan and the disproportionately high incarceration rates for people of color. Racism has touched Anderson’s life directly, affecting both her and her sons. She harbors no illusions about racism and injustices being eradicated in her or her children’s lifetimes, but she holds out hope for her grandchildren.

Anderson’s education didn’t stop at an associate degree. In 2015, she returned to her hometown and enrolled at UCCS. The flexibility of online classes allowed her to progress at her own pace.

Over the next few years, Anderson faced challenges including periods of unemployment and housing instability. This led to her living in her car with her dog Bindi on two separate occasions.

“It was stressful,” Anderson recalled. “A lot of businesses don’t allow loitering, so it was difficult to find someplace just to sit. We spent a lot of our time at Palmer Park. At night, we slept on public streets.”

Anderson struggled with depression and anxiety. She applied for disability benefits, which were eventually granted. A turning point came in February 2020, when she moved into a Volunteers of America senior living facility. 


From 2009 to 2024, Anderson doggedly pursued her college degree. There were times she wanted to quit, but she was no quitter. 

Donna Lobato, the property manager at Anderson’s residence, has been a key source of support and motivation for her. 

“I think Renee is a prime example that you can do anything you put your mind to,” Lobato said. “She wanted to be a good example for her grandkids, but I think she wanted to prove something to herself.” 

Anderson is actively involved in the residential council and engages in various other activities at her housing complex. Lobato emphasized that Volunteers of America’s low-income and affordable housing allowed Anderson to pursue her goals, along with the educational grants and student loans she received.

Now, with her graduation behind her and her degree in hand, Anderson is looking for volunteer or part-time employment focused on civil rights or addressing injustices.

“If you see a wrong, try to right it,” Anderson said. “I speak up for people who either don’t speak up or who are afraid to speak up.” 

Her voice is one forged from a lifetime of overcoming stumbling blocks with grit and determination. That refusal to stumble allowed her to aspire and achieve, even into her senior years.

“No matter how old you are, you can still achieve your dreams,” she said. ■

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